Schools are one of the few parts of daily life continuing to operate amid concerns of COVID-19, but they're preparing as if a long-term shutdown is inevitable.
The only question is: When?
For students at Nichols and Elmwood Franklin, two private schools in Buffalo, that answer came Friday, when they became the first to announce they would close at the end of the day and reopen after spring break on April 13.
Buffalo Public Schools is moving closer to that conclusion, too, after deciding to close schools for students on Monday, then reopen Tuesday, when teachers will give students three weeks worth of assignments. Superintendent Kriner Cash said school officials will then discuss whether to close for additional days.
But for the tens of thousands of other public school students across the Buffalo region, families are still waiting for an answer.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Friday that New York will waive a requirement that schools hold classes 180 days per year as a growing number of districts move to shut down schools to try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Relaxing the 180-day school session requirement comes as some states have already closed K-12 schools statewide, including Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Michigan and New Mexico.
Cuomo said that will cause disruption for parents and children.
"The state at this point, with these numbers, does not believe we need to close schools statewide,'' Cuomo said. Schools are free to close if they choose because of any health emergency.
"I have no problem setting a statewide standard,'' Cuomo said if the situation worsens statewide.
When to close and for how long are not decisions local schools districts are making alone, but rather with guidance from their local health departments.
“When are we closing? How long are we closing?" said Lynn Fusco, superintendent of Erie I BOCES. "We don’t have answers at this point in time, but we continue to stay in contact with our government leaders and our medical professionals."
Erie I BOCES has been coordinating meetings between local school superintendents and Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein to stay on top of the situation.
"I don’t mean to be cheeky, but when we have the information that we need from the department of health in order to move forward that’s when we'll do it," Fusco said. "Right now, there is not an indication for us to move forward in closing schools."
But as every facet of everyday life is affected – from going to church services and the theater to attending sporting events and picking up groceries – it's clearly only a matter of time.
"Because of what we are seeing in other parts of the state where the virus is spreading, we are preparing for that eventuality," said Patrick Fanelli, a spokesman for the Ken-Ton school district.
In West Seneca, the district on Friday sent home additional learning material for students in the event districts are ordered to close.
In Williamsville, officials sent a letter informing parents about efforts to communicate and continue education online should schools be forced to close.
And in Orchard Park, the district made sure students in grades six through 12 went home for the weekend with their laptops.
In fact, officials had already started canceling school events across the region, after conferring with health officials.
That class trip to Washington D.C.? Gone.
The high school musical? Cancelled.
Those state basketball championships? Postponed indefinitely.
"Those are things families and students just can't wait for and it's very difficult – heart-wrenching – to say we need to curtail those events to protect the public health," Fusco said. "I'm sure families are disappointed, as well."
Mark Laurrie, superintendent for the Niagara Falls City School District, said the district will listen to those who know better in terms of public health, but he is also trying to maintain a little bit of normalcy that people need in their lives right now.
“I think schools are the backbone of that,” Laurrie said.
“We’re prepared for it, but I don’t have any intention of closing until we have a confirmed case in either Niagara Falls or the school district,” Laurrie said. “And if we were to have a confirmed case and it were isolated to one school, I would close that one school.”
For how long?
“I’d only be able to tell you that based on the situation and the number of cases in the school, but if it were one case, it would be 24 to 48 hours,” Laurrie said.
The state's education and health departments did release some guidance to school districts earlier this week on how to handle COVID-19.
Basically, their directive was to work closely with state and local health departments, which will notify schools if and when a school must be closed because of the new coronavirus.
"Schools are not expected to make decisions about closing or canceling events due to COVID-19 on their own," according to the state Education Department.
If a student or staff member has a confirmed case of COVID-19, the state requires an initial 24-hour closure of the school to better determine how many others were exposed and whether further closure is required.
During that 24-hour period, the school also must take steps to disinfect the school.
The New York State teachers union doesn't want it to get to that point.
“With the coronavirus continuing to spread, we are calling on state and local health and school officials to take decisive action and proactively close all schools in counties where there are confirmed cases of this virus," Andy Pallotta, the union's president, said Friday in a prepared statement.
At a news conference in his City Hall office Friday, Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash laid out plans for if the district should decide to close schools in the future.
"Today, I am here to say we are not closing schools for a long period of time, but we are beginning the intense preparation for should we have to close schools for an extended period of time," Cash said.
Schools will be closed on Monday for students, but staff will report. Classes are scheduled to resume on Tuesday, when students will receive three weeks worth of work should the district close schools.
In Niagara Falls, the district has been working on plans to move instruction online, but the effort has been “incredibly difficult,” Laurrie said, whether it’s making modifications for special education students or ensuring kids have access to the internet.
“I would be lying to you if I said I figured out distance learning for K to 12,” Laurrie said. “It’s such an incredibly difficult and nuanced thing to do. If somebody had a model out there, I’d certainly want to buy it.”
"It is different for P-12 schools than it is for higher education," Fusco said. "It's a little tougher for kindergarteners and first graders to do more online learning, so we're grappling with that right now and looking at contingency plans on how we might be able to help districts should there be a closure of schools for any length of time."
Laurrie was more upbeat about plans to provide meals to students should a school shut down. He expects school kitchens to remain open and bag lunches to be delivered to designated neighborhood locations in the city.
So while schools may be open right now, parents need to be ready for that to change.
"In a heartbeat," Fusco said.
News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.